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No Labels — OneMaine: finding common ground

Posted May 01, 2011, at 7:47 p.m.
Last modified May 09, 2011, at 11:48 a.m.

In his April 20 column for the Bangor Daily News, David Farmer suggests that the political initiative that calls itself “No Labels” might more accurately be called “no substance.” “No Labels,” Farmer writes, is “a group spreading the gospel of getting along,” a “roadshow” that preaches “malarkey” because it fundamentally misreads the nature of politics in Maine and in America.

Farmer dismisses No Labels as “a large group of people, left wandering between the two major political parties in a moderate’s no man’s land, unrepresented and unheard, eclipsed by the loud voices of the extremes.” Instead, Farmer argues, the electorate is as partisan as the political parties. “Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on a lot of important issues,” and “the reason the political leaders don’t agree is because voters don’t agree.”

David Farmer is an ex-journalist who was also the deputy chief of staff and communications director for the Baldacci administration. He should know that many of the issues facing the country and our state do not need to be polarizing issues.

Farmer also must know that there is toxicity in politics when elected leaders from one party (Republican or Democratic) are punished for working with elected leaders from the other party.

No one involved in the No Labels initiative is unconcerned by the many issues and crises that face our country and our state, but No Labels is not another advocate for specific solutions on education, health care, the economy, or the environment. It is an advocate for democracy and for democratic process.

We strongly believe that it is in the interests of democracy for those with different beliefs to find ways to work together, to trust this collaborative process and the possibility of finding solutions. We do not believe that democracy thrives when Democrats punish Democrats for working with Republicans or when Republicans punish Republicans for working with Democrats.

We think it is high time that the advocacy groups who punish these collaborations should be challenged by more moderate politics. We are convinced that an overwhelming majority of people in Maine and in America want these collaborations to occur because they believe in democracy — because they want solutions, not more stalemates.

Farmer writes with some irony that “No Labels’ mantra is one of moderation, collaboration, nonpartisanship.” “It all sounds so reasonable,” Farmer writes, “but it lacks any real substance.” Perhaps Farmer misunderstands what “moderation, collaboration, [and] nonpartisanship” entail.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address. Then he added: “We must be friends.” Isn’t this what moderation means? Moderation in politics does not mean the lack of a deep, even radical, understanding of issues or a passionate commitment to solutions.

What it does mean is a willingness to engage views with which one does not agree, to approach the disagreement “moderately,” even sympathetically, with goodwill and certainly without rancor. It means to collaborate where possible. It requires a political courage that will not allow partisanship or ideology to interfere mindlessly with the people’s work.

In Maine at the moment, climate change does not need to be a partisan issue. Health care does not need to be a partisan issue. Education does not need to be a partisan or polarizing issue.

Despite what Farmer suggests, moderation in politics does not require any lack of substance. Indeed the leader of No Labels in Maine, Eliot Cutler, offered more thoughtful and substantive proposals for solving Maine’s problems during the 2010 race for governor than all the other candidates combined. Cutler is now organizing OneMaine, a similar nonpartisan, centrist group for Maine.

Like No Labels, OneMaine believes that thoughtful, substantive politics can also be moderate and generous in its practice. The sense that we can work together, that we can resolve differences, that with goodwill we can find solutions, that democracy can work and a “more perfect union” achieved — these imperatives and not partisanship should characterize our public life.

Partisanship, when taken to extremes, makes politics a kind of warfare — it insists on winners and losers, on victories and defeats — but democracy at its best must also be our way of making peace. No Labels believes that politics can also be a peace process, and we are quite sure that peacemaking, the moderation it entails, is vital to democracy.

No Labels calls on all of us to heed Lincoln’s words. We are not enemies. We can find common ground.

Tony Brinkley lives in Bangor and works at the University of Maine.

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